Rarely a day goes by in the fall when I don't see bear scat. On any given walk near my Colorado home, there's bound to be a pile of seed-laden stuff, and because it's sorta crumbly, and because it signifies the passage of a wild creature, I find the piles beautiful and oddly endearing.
But this pile, now, this is something different.
My brother and I are standing in the chicken-house yard, at my parents' ranch, where the bear and her cubs have broken in the window and killed and eaten all the chickens. This is no great surprise, I guess -- it is fall, after all, and those bears need a lot of calories about now. They've taken out the mean rooster that's harassed me for years, and I can't say that I'm sorry. But the hens and chicks -- now, that's a bummer -- particularly because their heads and entrails are mashed in the dirt everywhere at my feet.
Jim, my brother, whistles one of those look-at-this-will-ya tunes. "You gotta see this, Laura, wow, that is one big pile of crap."
"I did see it," I say.
"Yeah, but wow. I have never seen a crap as big as that."
True enough: The pile of scat is as big as a full backpack. And it looks like something that came from a human, too. Probably because this bear has been eating like a human lately: chicken protein, for example. This smelly pile, plus the bloody chicken heads and feet and feathers, make me a little nauseous. I step out of the chicken yard and wander back to the dirt road that transverses the ranch, where I wait for Jim so we can take a walk, which is, after all, why I'm here.
Jim has schizophrenia, and I'm here to check up on him. Though grown, he lives with my parents, and I've been asked to look in on him in their absence. They haven't left him before for any great length of time. He's responsible in the extreme, though, so much that I sometimes think he's been saved by this ranchwork -- something useful and real to do, to keep his spirits and body up and aware; and the ranch, thus far, has been saved by him, since my parents have decided not to sell it as planned, now that they have a full-time worker living here, one who knows what he's doing.
But still, my parents were worried before they left on a much-needed vacation: Perhaps he would forget to feed the animals, or forget to feed himself, or forget to do some critical thing, such as lock up the chickens. But he did lock them up, and the bear and her cubs broke the tiny window anyway. It couldn't have been prevented, and my brother looks happy, so despite this chicken mess, all seems well, and I'm happy to be relieved of duty.
Or so I think. When Jim approaches, ready for our walk, I notice for the first time a new, white bandage on his finger. So I punch him in the arm, as is my custom, and ask, "So whaddya do to your finger?"
He starts walking towards the mountains. "Oh, I cut off a bump and then injected it with de-natured poison ivy."
"You did what?"
"I cut off the bump on it and then injected it with de-natured poison ivy."
My brain does a quick scan. What is that? I don't know. "What does that mean?"
"Then I put three stitches in. You know, we're going to have to clean up all those dead chickens, which is going to be a fucking mess." His voice is calm and melodic and contemplative, as always.
"Wait a minute, back up. What did you do?"
"Laura, you ask too many questions. Listen, I have a bump on my finger. Sort of like a wart, sort of like this one." He impatiently points to a bump on his wrist that looks exactly like a wart. "So I cut it off last night. I guess we'll just rake everything up? Throw it all out back?"
"You cut your finger with what? Like, with a knife?"
"Oh, jeez, Jim. I'm not sure that's a fabulous idea. Did it hurt?"
"Not too bad. And then I boiled a poison ivy leaf for 10 minutes. Then I injected the water with a syringe. It'll make my immune system rev up. I think it would work with melanomas, too. Doctors should try it. It will make the immune system go ballistic. The smell of those chickens is going to get worse. We're going to need to work fast. Look," he says, pointing down, "there's more bear shit!"
"Huh, OK," I say, "I hope you're OK." And on we walk. The ranch is calm and beautiful, my brother is calm and beautiful, and I am thrown into a state of wonder at the ice-thin fragility of it all, as thin as the ice that will soon form on the river next to us. I think of bears, poison ivy, developers, and the sweet struggle we share in trying to make things right. I wonder where the bear and the cubs are sleeping, with their bellies full. I wonder where they'll find a quiet safe place for the winter. I wonder about the bear walking next to me, and what wildness is caught within him.
Laura Pritchett lives in northern Colorado. She is the author or editor of five books, her most recent one being Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers.